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Interview: Thomas Brinkmann

Having worked alongside everyone from Mike Ink and Villalobos to Oren Ambarchi and Mika Vainio, Thomas Brinkmann has experimented with sound, its textures and its construction methods more than most of our logical or even creative minds allow us to conceive. His custom built two-arm turntable on Concept 1, the sampling of damaged records on Klick and various experimenting with carved-groove vinyl since the 1980’s are just a handful of career highlights that mark Brinkmann out as a true musical pioneer.

Juno Plus scribe Hannah Briley managed to pin down Brinkmann during his stay in Japan, where he is lecturing and performing (hence the above sushi-related picture), covering everything from the state of utopia and pissing horses to Nine Inch Nails and John Miles.

In advance of his appearance at Toi Toi this weekend, what quickly becomes apparent is he’s not only an artist who will open your eyes to music and its foundations, but that he’ll fuck with your head in the process; in the best possible way of course…

Your latest album General Eclectics from your Soul Center project came out last September. It’s the first Soul Center release in nearly 10 years – why such a long break?

The last one came out 2002, so eight years ago. The whole (Soul Center) movement was not moving anything anymore, except for itself as a little business or ‘busyness’.

Ha…nice play on words. And why now?

Good question. I was in the mood to produce some tracks…

Soul Center is pretty far removed from your more experimental works, would it be fair to say it’s almost like a split personality?

No… not so far, I don’t think so. If I look down at myself it seems that everything is still connected.


So you mean that Thomas Brinkmann and Soul Center are musically still one? In that case do the two monikers and musical styles reflect you and your personalities?

Soul Center was four (albums) about four different things. I’m still looking for the club as a black box for interesting things which don’t appear in white cubes. It’s also a quite romantic idea and I want to keep it, even if I know that there is not that much going on right now. It was a good moment to work with Russian futurist lyrics…back then it ended up in the revolution and later in the gulag. I expect the same for the future. There is nothing to lose, so why not do it again?

Russian futurists? You mean in “Dyr Bul Scyl”? It has lyrics that were written by Russian futurist Velimir Kruchenykh in 1912, right?

Not Velimir…Alekseij Krucenyck or Kruchenych. Anyway, there’s about ten different spellings for the same name. “Dyr Bul Scyl” is 105% techno, and talking about the lyrics, Sven Väth has a fine nose for it!

There’s an interesting story regarding the crediting of those lyrics isn’t there?

Are you referring to the Deutsche GEMA? The collecting society who is asking for the Kruchenyck rights?

Yes, exactly…

Sven (Väth) did a licence and he was very correct in telling them about the credits on the record. Yes, it’s a poem from the Tsar times, before Lenin, before Stalin, before Khrushchev, before Brezhnev, Gorbachev and Putin and Obama, but lasting longer than all of them. And these are only 13 syllables, four years before DADA started in Switzerland. GEMA made a bit of trouble, but nobody owns the rights anymore. I tried to figure out about it and even the Russian collector’s society said, “Sorry…but these (senseless) 13 syllables?” GEMA can now take 50 per cent to make themselves happy, because there’s nobody at the other end who is waiting for the money. They fucked me and they fucked Kruchenyck. Kruchenyck said that there is more in his 13 fragments of language than in the whole Pushkin and this is not just humour, it’s very serious and he is 100 per cent right.

And what is it that inspired you to use that style of lyrics in the first place?

I really love this silver age stuff from Russia. It is more than just modern, but I’m not the only one who is using it. Sieg über die Sonne as well. Fliegerlied, and even their name is the name from the opera, for which Kruchenych wrote the libretto…sieg über die sonne. Where is utopia these days?

“They fucked me and they fucked Kruchenyck. Kruchenyck said that there is more in his 13 fragments of language than in the whole Pushkin and this is not just humour, it’s very serious and he is 100 per cent right.”

Let’s go back to General Eclectics.  One reviewer made some comments, for example that the album cover image of the pissing horse could be your reaction to the “devaluation of electronic music’s cultural capital” after minimal and techno has eased off in the last few years in favour of house music.  Do you agree, both on the devaluation and on the assumed reason for the pissing horse?

The female pissing horse is sexy, it was pissing at the wedding of a friend from London.  All this complaining about techno had already started in the nineties. So what?! It’s nothing new. Yep, there’s some cheesy house now, who cares? Dubstep, hip-hop, blues again, cheesy melodies in techno – like what Ricardo is talking about in this self-movie. By the way, the headphone shit at Panorama Bar was amazing!

You re-worked Hawtin’s 1996 minimal series Concept 1 in 1998 with an innovative take.  Using a custom built two-arm turntable you used each arm to pick out different channels, revealing a different depth and groove to Hawtin’s tracks.  These days however you appear bemused as to why Hawtin has received more attention than other artists, more perhaps, media acknowledgment. You almost insinuate that you don’t have too much respect for him.  Why is that after working together on Concept?

This is a misunderstanding, Richie Hawtin and I, we never worked together.  The variation is the variation and every other thing is every other thing.  He is just THE techno hero and he remained so while some people went further. It’s not a hidden critique! He never disclosed this movement and I really respect him a lot for what he is.  OK, he promotes himself very well, but what does it mean? Others are doing worse! His cup of tea.  At the same time he is the slave of his strategy and he knows it. I don’t have to tell him, he’s smart enough.  I never expected a revolution from him! I can’t do that either and I’m not disappointed about what he’s doing, I haven’t even followed him that much in the last decade. I hardly doubt that, from his point of view, Soul Center is any better. I’m not disappointed because I’m not in love, you know?! Early Plastikman and maybe also Concept was already a lot! Nobody has done anything like that, so both are milestones, like the first Panasonic productions, Mike Ink’s Studio One Series or Maurizio. But, some went further. Mika (Vainio) for example is a very serious guy with a huge knowledge about culture in general and his cosmos is much bigger than just a dancefloor. He took part long enough in what he left behind. This was a wise decision, but at the end of the day everybody has to carry the shit he didn’t get rid of in time.


Experimenting with sound production throughout your career has been key; the double-armed turntable on Concept, sampling damaged records on Klick and also etching scratches and indentations into vinyl to produce loops on x100. You’ve even programmed sounds in a specific way in order to make visual circles on the record – a more art orientated result rather than the sound being the importance.  Did you use any new sound construction methods on General Eclectics?

No, not at all. I used Logic 7 and some additional hardware and stuff you can buy everywhere.  With the Klick live sets I go further, this week I played a trio with Oren Ambarchi and Mika Vainio in Japan, but this is a totally different thing, 100 per cent improvisation, risk and fun at the borderline (of music). And tomorrow I’ll play something like this (but solo), next to a Soul Center set at a dance club in Osaka.

On Ernst all the tracks seemingly have women’s names as track titles – can you enlighten me on why and who all these women are?

Simple – it’s the easiest way to name them.

‘Them’ being lovers I assume?

 

No no, the contrary.  I don’t spread my love that wide.  The whole alphabet…what a concept.

You clearly make your music conceptually – does this transcend into Ernst, Max and Max Ernst, your labels? Did they or do they each have different concepts to you?

It’s all about yesterday; I don’t care about all these names anymore.

There was a quote from an interview that Todd Burns did with you in 2008 that made me stop and re-read, I wanted to ask you about it.  When discussing ‘soul’ within music these days you said, “Where is the struggling, is music like a comment from the news, entertaining somehow?  Where does music start hurting you?  Where are the wounds and the scars?  Where is the need and where is the fucking soul?”  It seemed like an almost angry statement and maybe a statement that has come through your own pain from music.  Do you think that music should hurt us?

Oh yes! Can you feel it – love hurts. You may listen to Nazareth nice lyrics again.

 

I’m not following you…the Nazareth lyrics talk about love hurting, not music?  Are you saying that music is a love affair, or somehow equivalent to love in the emotional pain it can cause?

Do you remember this John Miles track? “Music was my first love, and it will be my last”.  Love and hate, the two sides of the same medal (and the medal might be music). If you say “I love music” there is also something you hate about it, if it is a sincere love. You have to struggle with it and not only bad music can hurt. These drowning walls of Phill Niblock and his The Movement Of People in endless repetitions can hurt as well and I am sure that he had to listen to a lot to get through to what he’s doing. Or take Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now; they are attacking from the helicopters with “The End” by The Doors; the doors of perception and we get to this point, where we can ‘break on through’ the surfaces of pleasure, amusement, indulgence or hedonism. Clubbing is also about burning yourself down! It’s a church in its best moments, and it can be a torture in this mass of people – exhausted, high on drugs, distraught. It is a very ambivalent thing and at some point you probably don’t wanna struggle anymore and you have to leave it behind. Or “Closer”, the Nine Inch Nails track… “Helps me to get away from myself.”  It‘s not only about love when Reznor sings: “I wanna fuck you like an animal.” And anyway, pain might be a pleasure. It is aesthetic! Pain makes you feel. It is touching. Some people take more than a swim in it.

“Clubbing is also about burning yourself down! It’s a church in its best moments, and it can be a torture in this mass of people…exhausted, high on drugs, distraught. It is a very ambivalent thing and at some point you probably don’t wanna struggle anymore and you have to leave it behind”

I agree, totally in fact. But how can you know that everyone’s exposure of their soul isn’t just different?  Maybe for each individual their musical output is a reflection of their soul, and that’s a personal perception however it may sound to other people’s ears…no?

This is a common place, and as a commonplace it’s as right as it is banal.  Other peoples ears, yes – BSD…Birds Sing Different! I don’t sell any truth.

I read that you believe that defects and mistakes are a part of us and a part of the musical process which should be explored and even exposed – do you think that technology has allowed too much perfectionism, too much accessibility to make everything seamless?

Meanwhile, we are back onto religion. Machine guns are giving an unstable beat, or perforation of bodies, international transparency. The defects and mistakes are not a question of belief, they are a fact.

Do you pay attention to the music being released at the moment?  A large percentage of artists releasing music today started within this era of production and sharing technology.  Do you buy into all that?

I still play quite often and so I still listen to lots of DJs spinning “The New” music…produced on Apple 64bit machines just to get on the I-Tunes platform as 128 kbps files, and maybe at least converted into Ableton livetime stretching, oh, and you have to listen to it on a Berlin Funktion one, or Turbo sound system which is telling you a story about the truth of today. I’m sorry but this is a little ridiculous, and on the other hand these tracks are often overproduced monotony without any character. Totally convertible. Yes, I still listen and I try to find something in between the silence.

 

Your experiments have an almost scientific or mathematical approach to art and music that is far from common, especially going back to the ‘new music’ we’ve been talking about.  I can’t think of any other electronic music producer who has been so intricate and dedicated when it comes to exploring construction methods in the process of their music.

There are a lot composers and producers who are going further than me and I think that I’m not going far enough. The experiments are the result of boredom. The lack of today is often the ‘lack of lack’ in general. If we are speaking about a material world, you can buy anything, anytime, anywhere – total availability and inflation. No value. The value in such a world is the lack. Real luxury. In the 3rd world it might sound cynical, sorry about that, but I’m talking about capitalism. And about the head-shit – science and shit have the same etymological roots. Language is smarter than talk.

I think some people could be, for want of a better word, intimidated by your music and the methods behind it.  Have you ever made music solely for a dancefloor…or is it critical to you to have a deeper approach to what you put out?

Wow… what a question! There’s always one person dancing, and the rest of them are sitting on the dancefloor and thinking about the world while I’m playing straight bass drum. But yes, I claim – although you may refute…

Do you see an end? Is there a time when you think you’ll stop releasing or even making music?

Yes …we’re all gonna die.

Interview: Hannah Briley